Leading in Chaos

In simple terms chaos is order without predictability. That is, there are systems, physical and social, that are well understood and yet are fundamentally unpredictable. Thus, chaos is not anarchy or randomness. Chaos is order, but it is order that is invisible. T.J. Cartwright

Anxiety engulfs many in leadership positions today. To others they display a calm and confident persona. Inside they feel lost, scared, confused, and out of control in response to dangers seen and unseen; known and denied. They often attempt to reduce their distress via quick-fixes: mindless reorganizations, repetitive change programs, and superficial remedies to systemic issues.

They work futilely to avoid discomfort, gain control, and find security not understanding that what is asked of leadership today goes counter to the mental models of the Industrial Era ingrained within them, generally without their awareness. They try to lead from old beliefs in a new world.

Heroic leaders come and go each with their own painless program that promises to make everyone feel in control once again. Most of their programs end before being fully implemented when the next savior takes over with her own plan to restore stability. Most of the time, effort, and money are wasted. Little changes except the organizations become more insidiously paternalistic. No one talks about this repetitive and addictive pattern of behavior.

Dr. Rachel Remen wrote, “In avoiding all pain and seeking comfort at all costs we may be left without mercy and compassion. In rejecting change and risk, we often cheat ourselves of the quest. In denying suffering, we may never know our strength and our greatness.” Deep change, which is required, is difficult: scary, painful, and uncertain. Such transformation also renews people and organizations and improves the chances for the sustainability of the enterprise.

D.H. Lawrence wrote, “The great virtue in life is real courage that knows how to face facts and live beyond them.” Much angst comes from people’s refusal to see the world as it is and themselves as they are. We live in the midst of multiple global transformations with outcomes unknown and in the background the deep dangers of global climate change grow daily. People in leadership roles cannot elude the chaos of life that is the context of leadership today and as far into the future as anyone can foresee. Many in the industrial world were conditioned for order, control, and predictability and this blinds many from the truth: chaos is healthy, creative, potential filled, and life renewing.

Leadership in the chaos of a dynamic world requires capacities vastly different than the capabilities needed in a world thought of as a great machine–as different as the skills of a mechanic and an artist.

Many frustrated leaders with mechanistic worldviews try to lead living organizations as they fix machines with control, conformity, and predictability being the goals. The leadership toolkit of the mechanic is mostly wrong for today’s leadership context. The artist’s palette of choices and eye for process, pattern, and relationships feed imagination and are needed on the organizational canvas more than the mechanic’s wrench.

Instead of dampening the energy surrounding them, wise leaders understand its dynamics, embrace its power, bring forth its potential, and develop the artistic capabilities needed to lead within the deeper and unpredictable order.

Astute leaders do not attempt to run and hide from themselves or frantically conceal symptoms of systemic problems with cosmetic solutions. They face their fears with courage and honesty and transform the dangers they sense to opportunities. They confront squarely the genuine problems old-school enterprises face in perpetual chaos: incongruent thought processes, problems of vision and values, the management of change, issues of mediocrity and organizational capacity, questions of sustainability, the truth of leadership capability, and matters of responsibility and accountability.

True leaders embrace the risk, honesty, and loneliness of a leader’s journey within: a creative odyssey of challenge, excitement, stimulation, and development of new ways to think about leadership.

They are the leaders we need for the 21st century.

7 thoughts on “Leading in Chaos

  1. A WONDEERFUL COLUMN! So how do we find such leaders? How do we create an environment that fosters the abilities of great leaders? Margaret Eubank

    • Now that is a good question. The leaders we need are within our organizations, but often not in power. Leaders are discovered and developed. So good people at all levels need to see the leadership potential in others and help them develop that potential.

    • Now that is a good question. The leaders we need are within our organizations, but often not in power. Leaders are discovered and developed. So good people at all levels need to see the leadership potential in others and help them develop that potential.

  2. For needed change to occur, I have lost the hope and expectation that it will happen as a result of leadership. Rather, today, it seems that the individual is going to have to be the one to look inside and find a way to work towards redefining human value in the workplace and society. Grassroots efforts, historically, have made much of the difference. I don’t think it’s any different in today’s times.

    • Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

      Robert Greenleaf in, “Servant Leadership” wrote that the problem in our organizations isn’t the “bad guys” but the “good guys” who have gone to sleep. In my years in leadership roles and as a consultant, the most frustrating thing for me was the legions of good people who did not speak up for themselves, for others, or for the success of the organization they worked in. Caring people whether in leadership roles or the smallest jobs need to stand up, speak up, and bring about the change needed in our organizations.

      Future posts will discuss these topics.

  3. Looking forward to the future posts. I would especially appreciate hearing your thoughts on how trust and courage can be nourished laterally among co-workers, especially when there is a dysfunctional work culture.

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